Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Horse World of London, by W. J. Gordon, 1893 - Chapter 1 - The Omnibus Horse

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THE omnibuses are the most characteristic feature of London; and they increase, while the cabs decrease. What London would be like without them a recent strike gave us the opportunity of knowing, and there can be no doubt that from an aesthetic point of view its streets would be considerably improved.
    But the omnibus is for use, not for beauty; it exists for the convenience of the many. It is a money-making machine, and it looks it, with its crowd of passengers, who pay up amongst them some forty-four shillings a day for its hire, as they sit between screens of patchy advertisements, which add a shilling a day to its takings, and spoil every attempt at improving its form and decoration.
    We shudder, however, at the thought of depriving a poor man of his omnibus, and for a writer on horses to even hint at such a thing is peculiarly ungrateful, inasmuch as the London General Omnibus Company [-10-] are the greatest users of living horse power in London. They have, in round numbers, ten thousand horses, working a thousand omnibuses, travelling twenty million miles in a year, and carrying one hundred and ten million passengers. In other words, every omnibus travels not sixty miles an hour, but sixty miles a day, and every horse travels twelve miles a day. And as an omnibus earns a little over eightpence-halfpenny a mile, and the average fare paid by each passenger is a little under three-halfpence, it follows that each omnibus picks up six passengers every mile.
    In practice, a fifth of the omnibuses are daily at rest or under repair, and allowing for these, each vehicle carries thirty-nine passengers during a journey, so that, with its accommodation for twenty-six, three passengers enter and leave for every two of its seats. The average number in an omnibus at any one time is given as fourteen, and averaging these passengers at ten stone apiece, and throwing in the driver and conductor, we get a ton of live weight, to which we can add the ton and a half which the omnibus weighs, making up two-and-a-half tons for the pair to draw, and thus we arrive at the easily-remembered formula that the London omnibus horse draws a ton and a quarter twelve miles a day. He draws this at the rate of five miles an hour; he is bought when he is five years old; he works five years; he costs 35l. to buy and half-a-sovereign a week to feed; he is sold for a 5l. note; and lastly, and by no means less importantly, 'he is not a horse, but a mare.'

    Most of these mares are English, some of them are Irish, only a few of them are foreign - that is, according [-11-] to the dealer, if he can be trusted in his verbal guarantee of nationality. And although the omnibus is of French extraction, and the London company has a French offshoot, it is curious that there is so little avowedly foreign about either the omnibus or its horseflesh. But the omnibus has always been fostered by the unexpected, even before the public fastened on 'Entreprise générale des omnibus,' and insisted on giving the vehicle the last word. Who would expect that Blaise Pascal, the philosopher, was the first patentee of the omnibus? It seems more incongruous than that the hansom should have been first patented by the architect of Birmingham Town Hall and of Arundel Roman Catholic chapel. Who would have expected that any new vehicle for the living would be introduced by an undertaker ? And yet it was Shillibeer 'de Paris,' the funeral performer, who brought over the omnibus in 1829 a three-horse affair, with twenty-two inside passengers and a library of books to amuse them - a library of 'standard authors which no omnibus should be without.' Twenty years afterwards the Shillibeer bus developed unexpectedly into the small 'twelve inside and two out' variety; in 1857 it suddenly sported the 'knife-board'; and thirty years after that it began to bear the garden-seat which Captain Molesworth invented, which the Road Car Company introduced, and with which the two vehicles a week turned out at Highbury by the 'London General' are all fitted - which vehicles, by the way, cost 5l. a cwt. to build.

    But it is not with the vehicles, but with the horses that we are concerned. Let us be off to some typical [-12-]  yard to see how these horses live and how they are cared for; and let the yard be one of the newest, say, that at Chelverton Road. Here are the 375 horses working the 'white bus' line from Putney to Liverpool Street. The white 'buses are well known for their trimness. Their colour precludes their being carelessly looked after, but they are no better kept than the others. Like the rest, they are cleaned and overhauled every morning, their locks looked to, their tires examined, their wheels tapped, just as if they were railway carriages, the minor repairs being done on the spot, the more serious being executed at Highbury.
    Each of these omnibuses has its driver, its conductor, and its stud of ten or eleven horses, the eleven being required when the vehicle does its four full trips and a short one in a day. The full trip averages three hours and a half, and the day's work thus employs eight horses, giving each pair in turn a day's rest, but the extra short trip means an extra horse and a different system of relief, which we can deal with later on.
    The horses are of all colours, bay, roan, brown, chestnut, grey, and that most promising of all colours, flea-bitten grey, which is seldom worn by a bad horse. All over the country, at the fairs and the provincial stables, buyers are at work for the company, picking out the peculiar class of horse which will best bear the constant stopping and starting of the London omnibus traffic. When an omnibus is full it weighs three and a quarter tons, a considerable weight for a pair to start. Think of it, ye exigent women, who rather than walk a yard will stop an omnibus twice in a minute; [-13-] the sudden stopping and starting, so often unnecessary, taking more out of a horse than an hour's steady tramp on the level, and being the chief cause of the London horse's poor expectation of life.
    When the horses are bought they are sent to the depot at Paddington or to that at Spitalfields, where they are sorted out for the different roads. Five years on the London streets takes as much out of a horse as ten years elsewhere; and a horse that will suit one road will not suit another, owing to the different kinds of paving. There is one road worked over by one of the 'Favourite' lines on which there is no asphalt; there are others which have every variety of material the worst being asphalt when slightly wet, the best being wood when lightly sprinkled with gravel. But it is not so much the paving as the change from one sort to another which is so puzzling to the horses, the sudden break from granite to asphalt, or macadam to wood, requiring an instant change in the step, to which not every horse is equal, though by some the knack is caught in a week or so.
    The new horse is sent off to the yard from which the road he has been chosen for is worked. This is the headquarters from which the omnibus begins its travels in the morning, and to which it returns at night after its four or five journeys to and fro. The 'Putneys,' for example, start eastwards to Liverpool Street, and their last journey is a westerly one; the Walham Green 'Favourites' work northwards to Islington and back; the Victoria 'Favourites' work southwards from Holloway and back; the 'Royal Blues' from Victoria, northwards and back; and so with all the rest, always out [-14-]

[-15-] and home, though on some lines the horses are not changed at the yard, but at some corner close by.
    The new-comer is exercised in a two-horse brake, and as soon as found fit is placed alongside its future companion. Each stable contains as a rule two studs, one on the right-hand, one on the left, each row with two gaps together for the pail out at work. Every horse is branded on the hoof; and on the wall over each head is a plate giving the number of the horse, the colour, and the date of purchase. Some of the young ones will be worked out in eighteen months, some will last seven years; but the same pair are worked together till one of them fails, and in the eleven-horse studs it is the one odd horse which is changed about. Each horse has its own collar, which hangs near the number-plate, for horse collars are made in sizes like men's collars, and no good work can be done if the collar is ill-fitting.
    As a rule the horses look better in the stable than they do in harness, and their home is neater than might be supposed the eight or nine of them in a row on each side standing in peat, for there is no straw; the plates and collars in a line above their heads; the long sliding skylights aloft; the brick floor with the clean-swept gangway, having the door at one end and the bin at the other.

    The unit of organisation is the stud, and every stud is in charge of a horsekeeper, against whom is charged the forage and other bills, just as the coal and oil bills are charged against an engine-driver on a railroad. The provender for 10,000 horses runs into large figures [-16-] during a year. The chief item is maize, of which 115,000 quarters, or 25,000 tons, are eaten; of oats 8,000 quarters, or 1,075 tons, are run through; of beans and peas 12,300 quarters, or 2,700 tons - making up 29,000 tons of grain, in addition to 8,000 quarters of bran and 20,000 loads of hay and straw and mixture - a pretty little forage bill, working out, as we have said, at almost ten shillings a week per horse.
    Even the shoeing costs 20,000l. a year, averaging a shoe a week for each horse, and including frost nails in cold weather - poor weak things for such rough work, which, as a rule, are worn down long before the commencement of the return journey. Should a horse fail, it is the driver's duty to get it up again; but should it be badly injured, it is the conductor's duty to go to the nearest telegraph station, wire to the yard, and remain by the horse till the cart comes; while the driver, looking the most miserable of men, takes home the vehicle with the remaining horse.
    Two out of every three horses die in the service, and the carcases sold have exceeded 1,300 in the year. Only such horses as are likely to thoroughly recover are taken care of, the 'bad lives' being remorselessly weeded out. But though the horse is, of course, looked upon as a machine - for sentiment pays no dividend - there is a pleasant friendship between horse and man which not everyone would suspect.
    It was a novel experience being driven from yard to yard by one of the foremen in his gig. He had charge of about a thousand horses, and almost everyone he knew by sight, and could tell the stud it belonged to and the stable and place in which it stood; and he [-17-] was, apparently, posted up in the history of every horse in every omnibus we met.
    'See that nice little mare on the near side? A month ago she had paralysis in her back, but we pulled her through, we did. There comes another, the off one; she has been having a bad sore throat, poor thing,

but she's better, good old soul!' And a moment later: 'Here's a pair of big 'uns. The grey trod on a French nail, and a nice job we had to get the foot right. The near 'un had fever in the feet very bad last month; that isn't so serious: it is a very common complaint. Oh! you brute!' - this to a showy-looking bay in another [-18-] omnibus. 'I wish you no harm though! Of all the tempers that ever spoilt a good horse you've got the worst. That's the lion and the lamb, I call them. The lamb had congestion of the lungs a little while ago. I found her very bad one Sunday morning, and thought we were going to lose her, but no! and there she is as tough as nails.' And with a lift of the whip elbow, answered by a similar lift on the part of the omnibus driver, we exchange the usual salute as we pass by. And when we reach the next yard we hear our friend ordering a pint and a half of ale for one horse, mustard for another, a blister for another, poultices for two or three, and 'a drop of whisky for the roan at the far end,' while there is a general feeling of sympathy all round.
    The veterinary bill is 3,000l. a year, the work being contracted for by local 'vets' in the different districts, each of whom has charge of so many yards. The ordinary ailments - most of them curiously human - are dealt with at the yards, and when extra care is required the patients are sent to the infirmary at the headquarters of the district; but this happens to few, and practically the horse passes all its life in the streets and stables. Once upon a time the company put its horses out to grass at Woodford, but that practice has been given up.
    The London General owns newly half the omnibuses in London, and is the largest concern of the kind in the world. Next to it in London comes the Road Car Company, which carries 37,000,000 passengers a year, and has about 300 cars and 3,000 horses. The company has been running about ten years, and is favourably known as the introducer of the garden seat [-19-] and the pioneer of the penny fares and the roll tickets. It is worked on much the same system as the London General, but being a younger company has fewer survivals.
    At Farm Lane, Fulham, the Road Car Company has the finest omnibus yard in Britain. At half-past seven in the morning when the first car comes out, and indeed at any time, it is one of the sights of London. In the central court are over sixty cars which have been washed and examined during the night, the cleaning of each seven being one man's night's work. Around the quadrangle are the stables, on two storeys, and in them are 700 horses. Four of the floors have each about fourteen studs of eleven in a long double line standing in peat, the gas jets down the middle alight in the fading darkness flickering on the double set of harness for each stud, which gleams black and shiny on the posts that make the long lines look longer, while the growing daylight streams in from the high windows on the inner wall and from the ventilators overhead.
    There is a strong Caledonian element in the 'Road Car,' and even the horses are most of them Scotch. Like those of the 'General' they cost about 35l. each, begin work when about five years old, last about five years, and fetch about thirty shillings each as carcases for the cat's-meat man. When they first come into the stable they are put to light work with an experienced companion, and it is on an average eight weeks before they get into full working order. The studs are all elevens, the car doing five full trips a day. The eleven, with the one horse working round as a relief, means one horse resting every day, and Sunday being a short day, [-20-]

[-21-] with a trip the less, affords a chance of a rest for three horses every seventh day.
    The day's work of an omnibus horse is, in fact, severe but short, and he spends at least five-sixths of his time in the stable, making friends with his neighbours, or trying to get the better of them, for there are many points of resemblance other than pathological between equine and human nature. And surely a little touchiness can be forgiven after a worrying trip through noisy London in rain or snow or fog, varied at all sorts of irregular intervals with sudden stops and starts on greasy asphalt; the start, as we said before, being for a full load a pull of between three and four tons.
    A road car of the latest type is said to weigh a ton and a half; as a matter of fact it weighs thirty-three hundredweight, and it costs, lettering and all, 160l. Adjoining the Farm Lane yard the Car Company have their building works, and here the car can be seen 'from its birth to its grave,' a stage carriage in all stages, including its helpless condition during its week of repair. For once a year each car comes into shop to be dismantled and overhauled, when all its working parts, and even its springs, are taken to pieces, and condemned if unsound.
    In these shops is an interesting set of wheel-making machinery - a nave machine, that with its cutters at different lengths and of different widths, shapes a nave at one operation; a radial machine, that shapes the fellies, the mystic seven of which form the ring that takes the twice seven spokes; a trueing machine that finishes the woodwork; and a tiring table - not of the Queen Anne type - that rises from a well to hold the [-22-] wheel and the glowing tire, and sinks back into the water with a hiss and a seethe as the hot iron cools and grips itself into place. The wheels of a car are a means of its identification. By the colour of the body you tell the line the vehicle travels; by the colour of the wheels you tell the company to which it belongs.
    Besides the 'General' and the 'Road Cars,' there are the Omnibus Carriage Company, the Railway omnibuses, including the Metropolitan, now lighted by oil gas or electricity; the omnibuses owned by the Tramway Companies, the Camden Town, and Star, and other associations, and the private owners, ranging down to that fortunately rare 'unfairest of the fare,' the man with one vehicle, the so-called pirate or 'flat-catcher,' who cruises as he likes and charges what he pleases; an irregular man who makes up for the erasures in his fare-table by an exuberance of expletives - at least, as a rule, though there are in London some of the honestest and mildest-mannered pirates imaginable, with the very neatest and completest of turn-outs.
    Every omnibus or road car allowed to ply in London has to be approved of and licensed by the Scotland Yard authorities. About five per cent, are refused a licence every year, and thus weeded out by the police, for being too old or unsafe to pass muster - some of them condemned in the daylight at the annual examination, some of them discovered and doomed in the night time at the monthly inspection. The annual police return gives the present number of licensed omnibuses at 2,210, but this does not include the trains, of which we shall have something to say by-and-by. These 2,210 vehicles we can assume to require [-23-]

[-24-] 22,000 horses and 11,000 men to look after them and their burden. The horses, at something under 35l. each, would represent three quarters of a million of money, and the stables and buildings they occupy are worth at least another quarter of a million, for those of the London General and the Road Car are valued at 200,000l. The million is thus made up by the bus horse and his home, and his food costs over 10,000l. a week; the 2,200 odd vehicles average 150l. apiece to build, which means a third of a million for the lot; and if we add to this a sixth of a million for the value of the harness and the stores generally, after making all allowance for depreciation on every point, we shall make up another half million, and, adding our figures together, be well within the limit in estimating that it takes fifteen hundred thousand pounds to work the omnibus trade of London.

    The tram came into existence to save the horse, it being shown clearly enough that the introduction of the rail meant the reduction of resistance and the easing of' the horse's work; but, as a company for merely lightening a horse's labour would hardly be floatable, it was at once proposed to increase the weight and carrying capacity of the vehicle, so that the investor might share advantages with the horse. As a consequence, the poor horse is 20 per cent, worse off now than he was before the invention of the rail.
    The average working life of a London omnibus horse is five years; that of a tram horse is only four. He is the same sort of horse; he comes to work at the same age; he costs about the same; and he works the [-25-] same few hours; but so much greater is his effort that it costs a shilling a week more to feed him, and he is worked out in four-fifths of the time.
    From the horse's point of view tramming, as we now have it, is by no means the perfect system of locomotion that some people imagine. In the testing-room there may be but a trifling difference between the resistance experienced by a wheel on a raised rail, and that of one on a sunk rail; but this difference becomes enormous in practice, particularly in a climate and on a soil such as London's. The railway rail stands up clear and clean; the tramway rail is generally clogged with dirt, besides being burdened with the additional friction caused by the flange of the wheel. As an object lesson in this matter take a railway horse engaged in shunting; watch the ease with which it starts and the weight it draws, as shown even by the tare of the trucks, and compare it with the effort made by a tram horse. It is a fact that the amount of resistance on a dirty tram-rail is almost as much as that on wood pavement, and if all the London roads were of wood the lives of a tram horse and a bus horse would be in the inverse ratio of the weights of their vehicles.
    A two-horse car weighs two and three quarter tons when empty, and double this when full, which is a good weight for horses in daily work, particularly when it is remembered that a gradient of 1 in 100 doubles it, while 1 in 50 trebles it; and that although the tractive force is about a hundredth of the load on the level, yet four or five times the pull is needed to start a car as will keep it going - and a car averages 500 separate starts a day. A slope of 1 in 50 is not particularly [-26-] steep; it is, in fact, the prevailing gradient of the London Tramways Company, while that of the North Metropolitan up to the Angel is 1 in 40. The gradients are of course the same for the omnibuses as for the trams, but it does not require much of a mathematician to discover that there is a great difference between the doubling and trebling of 3˝ and the doubling and trebling of 5˝.
    There are just under 10,000 tram horses in London, most of them working two-horse cars; these cars being generally worked with a stud of eleven horses, in the same way as the horses of the London Road Car Company already described, each pair doing but one trip averaging thirteen miles a day out and home, the car travelling 65 miles, and picking up on its journeys about nine passengers per mile.
    London has 135 miles of tram line, of which 88 are double, and over these 135 miles the thousand cars, less the percentage under repair, accomplish a mileage of 21,000,000 miles in a year and carry 190,000,000 passengers. These 190,000,000 passengers pay a million of money in fares, so that 190 are carried for a sovereign, and the average amount paid by each person for each ride is a penny farthing.
    The greatest number of horses are owned by the North Metropolitan Company, who have nearly 3,500, being the largest number owned in the kingdom by any one tram company or municipality; the London Tramways Company have about 150 less. These are the two chief companies, and between them they possess two-thirds of the horse-power. Next to them comes the London Street Tramways Company, with about 1,200 [-27-]

[-28-] horses, the South London filling fourth place with about 800. London has more tramways than any other place; there are 13 companies in it altogether, and these companies own half the tram horses of England, and their horses mount up in value to nearly a third of a million sterling.
    On June 30, 1890, the capital paid up by these companies was 3,561,000l. Adding to this what we arrived at for the omnibus trade, we obtain the mystic 5,000,000l., which enables us to say with a fair approach to accuracy that to work the London trains and omnibuses one pound has had to be invested for every member of London's population.